As winter comes into full swing, it’s important to remember that cold weather poses a serious threat to your pet’s health. Here are some tips to keep your pets safe during cold weather:
Winter Wellness: Has your pet had their preventive care exam (wellness exam) yet? Cold weather may worsen some medical conditions, such as arthritis. Your pet should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year, and it’s as good a time as any to get them checked out to make sure they are ready and as healthy as possible for cold weather.
Know the Limits: Just like people, pets’ cold tolerance can vary from pet to pet based on their coat, body fat stores, activity level, and health. Be aware of your pet’s tolerance for cold weather and adjust accordingly. You will probably need to shorten your dog’s walks in very cold weather to protect you both from weather-associated health risks.
Arthritic and elderly pets may have more difficulty walking on snow and ice and may be more prone to slipping and falling. Long-haired or thick-coated dogs tend to be more cold-tolerant, but are still at risk in cold weather. Short-haired pets feel the cold faster because they have less protection, and short-legged pets may become cold faster because their bellies and bodies are more likely to come into contact with snow-covered ground.
Pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances (such as Cushing’s disease) may have a harder time regulating their body temperature. They may be more susceptible to problems from extreme temperatures. The same goes for very young and very old pets. Consult your veterinarian if you need help determining your pet’s temperature limits.
Provide Choices: Just like you, pets prefer comfortable sleeping places and may change their location based on their need for more or less warmth. Give them some safe options to allow them to vary their sleeping place to adjust to their needs.
Stay Inside: Cats and dogs should be kept inside during cold weather. It’s a common belief that dogs and cats are more resistant than people to cold weather because of their fur, but it’s untrue. Like people, cats and dogs are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia and should be kept inside. Longer-haired and thick-coated dog breeds, such as huskies and other dogs bred for colder climates, are more tolerant of cold weather, but no pet should be left outside for long periods in below-freezing weather.
A Little More, Please: Pets burn extra energy by trying to stay warm in the wintertime. Feeding your pet a little bit more during the cold weather can provide much-needed calories, and ensuring they have plenty of water to drink will help keep them well-hydrated and make their skin less dry.
If your dog is outdoors much of the day for any reason, they must be protected by a dry, draft-free shelter that is large enough to allow them to move comfortably but small enough to hold in body heat. The floor should be raised a few inches from the ground and covered with cedar shavings or straw. The doorway should be covered with waterproof burlap or heavy plastic. Routinely check your pet’s water dish to make sure the water is fresh and unfrozen. Use plastic food and water bowls; when the temperature is low, your pet’s tongue can stick and freeze to metal.
No matter the temperature, wind chill can threaten a pet’s life. Exposed skin on noses, ears, and paw pads are at risk for frostbite and hypothermia during extreme cold snaps. For this reason, short-haired dogs often feel more comfortable wearing a sweater—even during short walks.
Rock salt and other chemicals used to melt snow and ice can irritate the pads of your pet’s feet. Wipe all paws with a damp towel before your pet licks them and irritates their mouth.
Antifreeze is a deadly poison, but it has a sweet taste that may attract animals and children. Wipe up any antifreeze spills immediately and keep it, like all household chemicals, out of reach. Coolants and antifreeze made with propylene glycol are less toxic to pets, wildlife, and family.
Dogs are at particular risk of salt poisoning in winter due to the rock salt used in many areas—often when licking it from their paws after a walk. Store de-icing salt in a safe place and wipe your dog’s paws, even after short walks. If your dog ingests rock salt, call a veterinarian immediately.
Protect Family Members: Odds are your pet will be spending more time inside during the winter, so it’s a good time to make sure your house is properly pet-proofed. Use space heaters with caution around pets because they can burn or be knocked over, potentially starting a fire. Check your furnace before the cold weather sets in to ensure it’s working efficiently, and install carbon monoxide detectors to keep your entire family safe from harm. If you have a pet bird, make sure its cage is away from drafts.
Avoid Ice: When walking your dog, avoid frozen ponds, lakes, and other water. You don’t know if the ice will support your dog’s weight, and if your dog breaks through the ice, it could be deadly. And if this happens and you instinctively try to save your dog, both of your lives could be in jeopardy.
Recognize Problems: If your pet is whining, shivering, seems anxious, slows down or stops moving, seems weak, or starts looking for warm places to burrow, get them back inside quickly because they are showing signs of hypothermia. Frostbite is harder to detect and may not be fully recognized until a few days after the damage is done. If you suspect your pet has hypothermia or frostbite, consult your veterinarian immediately.
Be Prepared: Cold weather also brings the risks of severe winter weather, blizzards, and power outages. Prepare a disaster/emergency kit, and include your pet in your plans. Have enough food, water, and medicine (including any prescription medications as well as heartworm and flea/tick preventives) on hand to get through at least five days. Here’s how to put that pet preparedness kit together.
Wild Animals Outdoors: If you park your car outdoors in cold weather, remember that stray dogs, cats, rabbits, raccoons, and other small animals will seek shelter in a car’s engine compartment to escape the cold. It’s always a good idea to tap on the hood of your car before starting up to give any animal a chance to run away before you start the vehicle. Otherwise, you could face a messy clean-up before you head out.
American Veterinary Medicine Association
Humane Society of the United States